Accidental Hoteliers

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Sleeping with history? You can, while choosing from seven centuries. Beyond the past, what’s it about Neemrana ‘non-hotels’ that’s turned Kate Winslett and Julia Roberts into fans?

“There it is, Tijara,” says Aman Nath, gazing out of the car window. His soft reverence makes our eyes lift off the dusty red road and yellow mustard fields to a stark ruin on the hillock, reddening under the sun. We’re in Alwar, the gateway to Rajasthan, where we’re staring at undiluted antiquity in the facades of a desolate monument, Tijara Fort. The turreted towers of its Hawa Mahal where the winds waft in at will and a low sequestered structure Rani Mahal are all that’s visible of a lost kingdom by the Aravalis.Winding up to the fort, views of relic landscapes melt away modernity. To the west, like a scene from the Old Testament, are date palms bent by desert breezes. To the east, till the mountain horizons, are green fields that’ll turn into cloudy grey-blue lakes in the monsoon. Destined to be the second kingdom of Alwar, Tijara’s construction was abandoned after a fratricidal war among Naruka Rajputs. Only 100 km from Delhi, it’s remained unfinished since 1845.

Today, almost 150 years on, two hoteliers are sounding the call for Alwar’s masons, artisans and crafts persons to return. Having signed a lease with Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation, they’re entrusted with completing Tijara. While retaining its Rajput-Colonial ethos, they’ll turn it into a living monument with 70 rooms, restaurants, pool and a spa. “Tijara could well be the site of the G8,” announces Nath, author and curator who looks like Hamid Karzai when he wears his topis (caps) at jaunty angles.

Nath and Francis Wacziarg, a French diplomat who opted to be an Indian citizen, are both accidental hoteliers. As co-chairmen of Neemrana Hotels, they’ve been turning heritage wrecks into residences, ‘non-hotels’ as they have called them for over two decades. The Aga Khan award for restorative re-use of Neemrana Fort Palace and accolades from Conde Nast Traveller magazine are milestones on their past-forward journey.

Soft-spoken Wacziarg, whose manner belies Gaellic-Ganga-Jamuni politesse, says: “We didn’t want to be part of a chain where you have to open your room-curtain to find out if you’re in Casablanca or Hong Kong.” Nor would they have room entry codes “that you punch like an automaton”. Instead, these accidental hoteliers dangled out brass keys, offering travellers a sense of epochal arrival. These brass keys can collectively unlock 700 years of history in over 14 Neemrana properties in 17 destinations. Larger chains can’t match this heritage timeline.

The first resurrection attempt was at a picturesque ruin in Alwar where Jackie Onassis and the Gandhis picnicked. Wacziarg and Nath, whose minds and souls had met while authoring The Painted Frescoes of Shekhavati, were enchanted by this fort. In 1986, after forking out Rs 7 lakh, they embarked on a passion project: the re-making of Neemrana Fort-Palace (NFP).

Beyond staying in hotels and hosting parties at home, they had no hospitality experience. Nath had a degree in history, a poet’s disposition and instincts of a born aesthete. Wacziarg was an Indophile with a refined palette and an eye for craft. Yet somehow, without sliding the meanings of history, without holding a handbook in their hands, they dovetailed this 15th century monument with modern comforts. Like a guerilla architectural ambush, the re-modelling isn’t easily perceived. There are bathing rooms with invisible plumbing where once there were loo holes in ramparts. The desert winds have been chilled by surreptitious air-conditioning. Around mahals last inhabited by bats and civets, there’s Wi-Fi and zeppelin rides.

“Of course, we wouldn’t do this if we were restoring the Taj,” they say. Based on Nath’s hand-drawn sketchicatures, NFP has grown from six to sixty rooms set on 12 tiers. “They’ve put back the jigsaw pieces of history,” says Shobita Punja of Intach. “Of course, they took liberties by adding a pool, but it’s okay, this isn’t the Red Fort, they’re saving a heritage building and adding to the experience.” These swimming pools are eco-sensitive, the water flowing though canna flowers before being re-used. “Cannas turn acid to alkali, we saw this technology in Bhuj,” says Nath.

Indians are seizing these dovetailed heritage experiences to acquire an ancestry, to re-possess lost traditions and enact wedding fantasias. Countless NRI and resident Indian couples have taken their saat pheras at Neemranas. “Our clientele is now 70 per cent Indian,” says Wacziarg.

The tariff ranging from Rs 2,000 to Rs 20,000 keeps cash registers jingling at Neemranas, all the way from Punjab to Tamil Nadu. Last fiscal, as hotel chains faced losses and sleeplessness during the slowdown, this group rested on a thin cushion of profit, as revenues rose 10 per cent.

While others have built pretend-palaces, propping up gilded dynastic portraits on walls, or designed modern mahals of glass and chrome, this duo has been true to the style: of the Yaduvanshis of Kesroli, the Nayaks of Tanjore and the Pottipatis of Malleshwaram. Without feudal focus, they’ve converted havelis, bungalows, mud forts and a dry dock into non-hotels. Design is entirely in-house. From the mortar and design of each mahal to the motifs of fabrics, from jharokhas to jams, details are sketched, sourced or stirred up by Nath-Wacziarg.

All this, so travellers can see, smell and taste lost eras within atmospheres of authenticity. Be it Ventkatgiri saris draped above beds at Bangalore’s Villa Pottipati, savonnerie rugs underfoot at Puducherry’s Hotel De L’Orient, or the creamy mouthfuls of akuri (shirred-eggs Parsi style) at The Verandah in Matheran. At the Hill Fort of Kesroli, India’s oldest heritage property-turned-hotel, the conference room is designed baithak-style, so business maharajas can sit cross-legged on white gaddis and lean against royal blue masnads (pillows) during work durbars.

Faults exist. Some unforgivable, like sloppy service and damp walls. Some serious, like slow-billing. Some quirky, like a room at The Tower House, Fort Kochi—exit the loo and the wardrobe doors gape open: “Air pressure,” explain these now-expert hoteliers whose working style is nomadic. Desks are irrelevant or makeshift. They stand on site, heads leaning together, poring over budgets, drawings and samples. A quiet consult later, an archway has been approved and a swimming pool is hand-etched, “Where the wind won’t ripple over the water.” Rather than vertical division of responsibility, there’s an appreciation of each other’s expertise that gets comfortably together. “Aman’s more well-versed in traditional architecture, I am more conversant with the colonial style. Since I speak Tamil, it helps in the south,” says Wacziarg.

Neemranification is now an accepted architectural appellation. It implies the turning of ‘liability into viability’. Though it suggests uniformity, each ‘non hotel’ is distinct. The Glasshouse on the Ganges distills spiritual tranquillity, Piramal Haveli showcases frescoes, and Patiala Palace the geometrical Mughal Baradari gardens. “Boutique is a self-conscious word we abhor,” they profess.

“Neemrana has brought India’s dark areas into focus,” says Punja. Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu didn’t exist on the Incredible India map. It does after the opening of The Bungalow on the Beach. Since April 2005, it has sold 2,300 rooms nights to travellers who’ve come here to breathe in the thickest ozone layer in India. Other hotels house hidden history: such Le Colonial in Kochi, the home where Vasco da Gama once stayed.

There are 200 projects waiting. Some jump the queue after a distress call. “Matheran, an eco-sensitive zone, was being desecrated, along with its beautiful heritage bungalows. I pleaded with Aman and Francis to help with the Dubash house,” says their friend Rashna Imhasly Ghandy. After restoring the soaring salons, fixing the red-oxide floors and white-gabled roofs, The Verandah in the Forest opened in 2002. “Francis was so respectful, he retained all the family portraits,” says Ghandy. They also held onto the old Parsi cook, until drink got the better of him.

A new business model is evolving, “More properties per destination,” says Wacziarg. In Ramgarh, Uttarakhand, there are five or six; Tranquebar will have five, and Matheran will soon have two. Operationally, this is more viable since the group depends on internal accruals. Properties break even in two to three years; the industry standard is seven to eight years. The business mantra of being local—in terms of materials, artisans and recruitment—keeps costs low.

They’re sourcing khats (beds) for Tijara, on the highway to Jaipur, from descendents of Chittor’s iron smiths. Says Nath: “These lohars swore never to return till Maharana Pratap won the war, they’ve been nomads since.” Besides artisans, Alwar’s floaters who gadded about with combs stuck in their back pockets, now turn up for work at NFP in kurtas and pajamas. They dress this way on off-days, when taking guests shopping.

In Tijara, as Nath hops onto a carved-stone terrace for a site inspection, Wacziarg is telling a mason: “No, the slope of this dome is wrong, it’s Turkish. It must be more curved with a kalash on top.” Besides billowing out this incomplete fort’s flat silhouette, the dome will conceal a water reservoir for servicing rooms on the first floor.

Below the balcony, 40 masons are breaking boulders into small stones that will carpet the 1.5 km approach road to Tijara, their most ambitious project yet. Looking at them, Nath says: “I wrote a poem for Tyeb Mehta for which he gifted me a painting—I sold it to build this road.” A Tyeb Mehta work just sold for Rs 4.5 crore at an auction. Here, this modern master’s art is being used to finance road building, a job of the PWD.

Though these accidental hoteliers will do anything to build Tijara, they rue the price: “When people come gliding up in their Mercedes’, will they know what it took to make this road?” As we drive away, lurching over the unbroken red boulders, Nath’s words ring in our ears: “Ours is a war to save the past, hoteliering comes last.”